House narrowly passes immunity-free surveillance bill
Defying President Bush, the House of Representatives on Friday narrowly approved a surveillance bill that does not give in to White House demands to give legal immunity to telecommunications companies that facilitated his warrantless surveillance program.
The bill passed 213-197, with one lawmaker voting present. The vote came after weeks of wrangling between House Democrats and the White House over the update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The bill fixes loopholes the Bush administration and Intelligence Community have said prevent surveillance of foreign communications that are routed through the US, while providing for more judicial oversight of surveillance procedures.
The House reached what Democrats say is a compromise on the immunity provision. The bill passed Friday allows companies to defend themselves in court with using classified justifications for the warrantless wiretapping program, and it precludes the administration from invoking "state secrets" privileges. The House bill also creates an independent commission to investigate Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.
The vote was quickly praised by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit against AT&T in San Francisco, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which also has fought hard to prevent some 40 lawsuits against the telecoms from being invalidated.
"We applaud the House for refusing to grant amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms, and for passing a bill that would allow our lawsuit against AT&T to proceed fairly and securely," EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston said in a release. "Amnesty proponents have been claiming on the Hill for months that phone companies like AT&T had a good faith belief that the NSA program was legal. Under this bill, the companies could do what they should have been able to do all along: tell that story to a judge."
“In spite of partisan scare tactics, the House of Representatives rose up today and put Americans’ civil liberties concerns ahead of politics,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the Washington Legislative Office of the ACLU.
With Friday's passage, the House bounced the FISA debate over to the Senate, which passed an update to the law that would have included immunity for the companies. The Senate is expected to consider the House bill when it returns from recess on March 31, according to EFF.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who voted against the Senate's FISA praised the House for passing a bill that adds "several crucial protections without interfering in any way with this important new surveillance authority."
President Bush has promised to veto any FISA update that reaches his desk without a grant of immunity. In recent weeks he has used used escalating rhetoric to make his case for immunity, claiming that it is unfair to subject the telecoms to "billions of dollars" in legal costs when the White House assured them their actions were legal.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said such justifications were bunk.
“Why would the Administration oppose a judicial determination of whether the companies already have immunity?" she asked on the House floor. "There are at least three explanations:
“First, the President knows that it was the Administration’s incompetence in failing to follow the procedures in statute that prevented immunity from being conveyed – that’s one possibility. They simply didn’t do it right. Second, the Administration’s legal argument that the surveillance requests were lawfully authorized was wrong; or public reports that the surveillance activities undertaken by the companies went far beyond anything about which any Member of Congress was notified, as is required by the law."